When darkness falls on Friday, a soft amber light will warm more than 50 cold, empty houses in the city of Schenectady.
In each, hundreds of LED lights will pulse with a steady rhythm that mimics human breathing.
“It’s like a golden yellow glow, almost like a lamp that’s in the window,” said Adam Frelin, the Troy artist who is leading the project.
“Breathing Lights,” a temporary public art project with a mission to raise awareness of the rising number of vacant homes in the region and nation, begins this weekend in Schenectady, Albany and Troy.
In the three cities, lights will turn on in more than 250 houses from 6 to 10 p.m. nightly through October and November.
The public is invited to view the illuminated houses on a scheduled tour, or by walking, bicycling or driving through the neighborhoods.
At breathinglights.com, the houses appear as dots on a street map without addresses, so for the casual viewer, “Breathing Lights” is more like a random encounter than a scavenger hunt.
In Schenectady, most of the lit houses are in the Hamilton Hill, Vale and Mont Pleasant sections of the city.
“These buildings, in most cases, are places of pain and loss. They are places of great conflict and turmoil,” Frelin said.
A few days ago, the artist spoke to The Daily Gazette from inside a Schenectady house as he and some technicians checked the lights.
Friday, Oct. 28: “Breathing Lights” Celebration, 6:30-9:30 p.m. at Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, 400 Craig St. There will be a walking tour and a shuttle to view illuminated houses in Schenectady and a Halloween party for children and youths, including trick-or-treating. Participants in the youth media program at Proctors will show their work. There will be a sneak preview of the “Housing is a Human Right: 28th Amendment” exhibit at Renaissance Hall, 824 Eastern Ave.
Saturday, Oct. 29: “Breathing These Words Poetry Workshop,” 1-4 p.m. at Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady. Tell your story. Write about a vacant building in Albany, Schenectady or Troy and share it. For more information, email [email protected], or call 526-1942.
Saturday, Oct. 29: “Housing is a Human Right: 28th Amendment” opening & conversation, 6-9:30 p.m., Renaissance Hall, 824 Eastern Ave. What if the most prosperous country in human history ensured the stability, health and housing of its people? Reception at 6 p.m. followed by conversation at 7 p.m. on housing in the Capital Region. Contact [email protected] for more information.
Sunday, Nov. 6: “Story Candles Workshop,” noon-6 p.m. at Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady. Artist Brenda Ann Kenneally will create scrapbooks with individuals who have lost young people in their lives. After the workshop, the “Story Candles” installation will be open to the public until the lights go out that night. There will also be a walking tour of illuminated houses in Schenectady.
Sunday, Nov. 13: “There Goes the Neighborhood,” 2-8 p.m., youth media at the Sanctuary in Troy.
Tuesday, Nov. 15: Reclamation Clinic A, from 6-8 p.m. at Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady. Learn how you can own and rehab a vacant house.
Thursday, Dec. 8: Reclamation Clinic B, from 6-8 p.m. at Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady.
For information on “Breathing Lights” in Albany and Troy, go to www.breathinglights.com.
“It’s really tragic sometimes,” he said. “I walk in here and see piles of children’s clothes, or I see family photos or I see syringes and pipes. You are constantly seeing either someone having left, obviously in a rush, or somebody coming in and using it for illicit purposes.”
Paid for with a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “Breathing Lights” is the largest public art project – in cost, size and scope – that’s ever happened in the Capital Region.
The mayors of Schenectady, Albany and Troy are partners in the project, and there are a host of sponsors, including General Electric and Key Bank.
Over the next eight months, dozens of programs are scheduled at three city “hubs”: Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, 400 Craig St., Schenectady; Albany Barn, 56 Second St., Albany; and the Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., North Troy.
Art, music, theater, film, youth media projects and poetry events are planned, along with reclamation clinics for residents interested in owning and rehabilitating vacant homes.
Schenectady will host its main event, Schenectady City Weekend, on Friday, Oct. 28, when guided walking tours and a guided shuttle tour are planned. No one will be allowed inside the houses.
On Saturday, Oct. 29, there will be a conversation about the future of housing in the Capital Region during the opening of the exhibit “Housing is a Human Right: 28th Amendment” in Renaissance Hall, the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church at 824 Eastern Ave.
Other arts venues are also involved, including the Arts Center of the Capital Region, Collar Works, University Art Museum, Proctors, New York State Museum, Sage College’s Opalka Gallery, Spring Street Gallery and Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.
The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute worked with Frelin on the equipment and installation. WMHT-TV is creating a documentary about the project.
“Breathing Lights” is deeply focused on residents of the neighborhoods affected by vacant homes, said Schenectady Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, a longtime Hamilton Hill resident. As Schenectady’s “ambassador” for “Breathing Lights,” Porterfield has been meeting with city residents and will lead tours.
“In November, we’ll start with the reclamation clinics,” she said. “We’ll be providing information to people. They can find out how they can reclaim some of these houses.”
“If somebody wants to take a class to learn about how you buy one of these buildings and what’s the first thing you want to do when you fix it up, they can come to one of 12 sessions that we’re putting on that will lead people through this process,” said Frelin.
A door tag on every house tells residents about the project and how to contact the city if they have questions.
“People need to know that it’s not a short-term project. It has an ultimate goal of improving the housing and the neighborhoods,” said Porterfield.
A Capital Region “Breathing Lights” forum is planned for the spring, she said.
“That’s when we come together and talk about what we are going to do with these houses and how we’re going to change the neighborhoods,” Porterfield said. “We’ll ask for community input.”
In the three cities participating in “Breathing Lights,” the illuminated houses represent less than 10 percent of the vacant buildings. In Schenectady alone, there are 1,000 vacant buildings owned by the city, bank or private individuals.
“We have so much blighted property here in the city. Something definitely needs to be done,” Porterfield said.
“They (the houses) are ugly and dangerous,” said Shane Bargy, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady. “It’s bringing awareness to an ugly issue. It’s starting conversations that will lead to change.”
On Sept. 15, one of three “Breathing Lights” programs called “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” brought more than 50 residents, from children to seniors citizens, to the Craig Street center. They painted images that expressed their answers to three questions: What does a community that cares about its residents look like? What does it feel like to live in a community with abandoned homes? And, how will “Breathing Lights” impact my community?
“Breathing Lights” was sparked by a conversation between Monica Kurzejeski, deputy mayor of Troy, Adam Frelin and Barbara Nelson, an architect in Troy.
Kurzejeski, who was overseeing the city’s landbank at the time, told Frelin and Nelson that the city wanted to apply for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge. Nelson and Frelin, an associate professor of art at the University of Albany, came up with the idea of illuminating vacant homes, and the Capital Region was awarded the grant.
“It had to draw attention to some social concern within the region that you’re in,” said Frelin. “We started thinking about the history of lighting technology – GE helping to mass produce the first lightbulb – and then what’s happening at the Lighting Research Center at RPI.”
In the neighborhoods where houses are being lit, the project has encountered some skepticism.
Porterfield said that when she first told residents about it, their reaction was, “why didn’t you use the money to renovate?”
She had to explain that the grant wasn’t about renovations.
Frelin is also aware of this issue.
“If I’m living in a disinvested neighborhood, and my property values plummeted because I lived near vacant buildings, maybe [“Breathing Lights”] is not the first thing I’m going to be excited about,” he said.
Vandalism has been another concern.
“So far so good,” Frelin said, adding that the project “could be a deterrent.”
In March, eight blighted homes on Eastern Avenue and Degraff Street in Schenectady were used as tests for the project.
“Over the course of a month, not one window was vandalized. And two of the houses actually were sold.”
Transforming blighted houses into artwork has its own challenges, Frelin said.
“We envisioned this beautiful scenario where thousands of buildings were going to be available to us and we got to hand-pick certain ones across from one another and next to one another. It didn’t turn out that way. The landbanks gave us a list, like these are the buildings you can go into right now.”
At one point, Frelin envisioned customizing each house so the lights “breathed” according to their volume.
“What was best is that there is one breathing rate, the same rate, but that every building has its own cycles. So two buildings might be breathing identically, but while one is going up, the other is going down,” he said.
“Every building has the same lights, the same breathing effect. We want people to think of this as a community project, not individual buildings.”
For the color of the lights, Frelin had to be sensitive and “not create something that is too flamboyant.”
“It’s kind of anthropomorphizing the building into a living, breathing being. But at the same time, it’s actually alluding to the idea of occupancy, either it having been once occupied or maybe in the future by having that quality of light, an incandescent warm, yellow color.”
Breathing Lights at 635 Seneca Street in Goose Hill
Courtesy of Heather M. Graham
Frelin has been carrying a camera to record what he sees inside some of the houses.
“When I come across a second floor that’s entirely filled with plants growing out of the rotting wood or something like that, I just take photos,” he said.
Some of those images can be seen in “Inside Breathing Lights,” an exhibit at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy.
“Someone thinks the bank is foreclosing on them, and to keep the creditors from coming after them, they just leave,” said Frelin. “And they often grab what they can and they go because they fear they are coming the next day. They get a phone call or something. Ironically, what really happens is that banks don’t actually own the building so it becomes what’s called a zombie. It’s caught between ownerships, and it stays like that. Sometimes it stays like that for decades.”
It’s a human disaster, Frelin said. “And then it becomes a structural disaster as the building falls into neglect.”
While Frelin hopes the project brings solutions, he is clearly making art.
“I want to create something beautiful,” he said. “I feel very proud doing that in some neighborhoods where money wouldn’t be used for an endeavor like that.”
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, Bargy echoes Frelin.
“Everyone deserves to live near beautiful things,” he said. “This is a wonderfully provocative project. It’s giving a voice to a troubling issue that residents face every day. It’s beautiful. The lights are beautiful.”
For more information, visit breathinglights.com.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or @bjorngazette on Twitter.